Not all British people drink tea, but Jonathan Brackley and Sam Vincent, the showrunners behind AMC’s “Humans,” did make sure to order some when we sat down at SeriesFest in Denver, Colorado last weekend.
A few hours before the first hour of the ensemble robot drama premiered at the festival, Brackley and Vincent laid out their approach to adapting the original Swedish series for an English-speaking audience. Other topics: why they waited to watch “Ex Machina” until just the day before, why they’ve tried not to take a pro-technology or anti-technology stance when it comes to the complicated world where various generations of robots serve humans, and which season of “The Wire” is the very best.
So I heard you guys got stuck on the plane, flying out here?
JB: Yeah, we were on the Tarmac for three hours. I got to watch “Ex Machina,” so…
“Ex Machina”? That’s very thematically appropriate.
JB: Exactly. Exactly.
SV: It was long overdue. We were avoiding it. We avoided watching it for a bit, didn’t we? Because we didn’t want to have our heads turned. It was good to watch it now, when we are all done with our series.
What did you get from the experience of watching it afterwards? Is there stuff that you are thinking about now like, “Oh, man. We should have tried this or that”?
SV: The most important thing for us is that there were no moments when we thought, “No! We did the same thing, but not as well.” It’s a great film. This one was sufficiently different from ours.
JB: I think we covered a lot of the same territory, but we approached it in completely different ways.
SV: It’s much more of a thriller. Its approach is much more overtly intellectual. We’re exploring those themes and concepts hopefully more in the family emotional context. They engage it more directly, with who those characters are. I really enjoyed it. It’s fantastic. It didn’t make us think, “Oh, no, we’ve completely done everything wrong.”
Talk to me a little bit about how you got involved in the project. I know it had a slightly complex start, in terms of coming to life from the original Swedish version.
JB: We first started working on this, it must be about two years ago now. We’ve done a lot of work with Kudos, the production company that made the show. We did two series of “Spooks,” or “MI-5.”
A great show.
JB: Thank you very much. We did the last two series of that and we just did the film adaptation, which was released in May in the UK. We had a good working relationship with them. Jane Featherstone, the chief of Kudos, came to us and said that “we’ve won the rights to remake this Swedish show. Would you be interested in adapting it? It’s about robots.”
It sounded like a great idea, so we said yes, we’re interested. Kudos then sent us the 10-episode first season of the Swedish show, where there are wonderful and interesting ideas that we thought we could bring our own take to it.
So after you watched the entire first season, you had that in your head when you sat down to reapproach it. What was the first thing you thought about changing, or thought about taking a different take on?
SV: I think it was more a matter of being so excited about the universal concept. This idea is familiar, artificial intelligent robots and all this, but doing it in a domestic setting. It was more about how we could build on things that they had done, certain aspects of their story that they hadn’t developed that much, in favor of others. We thought we’d do things slightly different. It was a whole variety of things.
We knew we were working with fewer episodes, so we had to change the pace, speed it up a bit. We knew that there were some characters that we were thickly interested in and others we weren’t so interested in, combining some colossal characters along with some new ones. A lot of things, really — there was no one big thing we thought that we definitely can’t do that, we must do that differently. It was more organic than that. We always felt like we were in a conversation with the original, that we were building on things and developing things.
JB: In general, our take on it is a little bit darker than the original. The material, for us, pointed into the darker areas of what humanity is capable of. I think it is also the simple fact that the original was on a network in Sweden, so it wasn’t able to push quite as much into darker territory as we were, with being on Channel 4 and AMC. It allowed us to sort of adventure into those areas.
SV: For example, the mistress story line in ours is completely an invention of ours. There is a similar sort of character in the original, but her storyline is quite different. She is not in a brothel. That’s one example of how we tried to make a change from the start.
JB: Episode 1 has quite a lot of similarities to the original Episode 1. We took a lot of the original characters and used them, but then we take them in completely different directions. By the end of our series, the characters are in a completely different place than they are in the original Swedish version.
We are seeing more attempts to do adaptations across country lines, but sometimes it doesn’t work — like bringing “Broadchurch” to America — and part of it, though, probably could be chalked up to the fact that American audiences had the opportunity to watch the original. You don’t have that pressure on you because the show has never been licensed for the UK or the US. Would you have approached it differently if American and British audiences had been able to see the original?
SV: That’s a good question. I haven’t really thought about it.
JB: I don’t think so. I think we were very distinct in our ideas for our take from the very beginning. I don’t think that would have changed if anyone else had seen it. But it’s an interesting one. There are sort of regional differences as well. Some things wouldn’t have translated particularly well from the Swedish world.
SV: I don’t think there is a cultural aspect in the DNA. The treatment of the original, I think it is more specifically cultural to Swedish. I think there was and everybody recognized that actually taking the spotlight and turning it on a different culture, the English-speaking culture, it will produce different things. It will naturally push into different areas. It’s a universal concept but not a universal telling, that story. That is one of the ways why adapting it, building on it, felt like the right way to go. It was what Kudos wanted to do and what we were excited about.
The show is very British in terms of its DNA and origins. But since it’s a co-production between Channel 4 and AMC, was there ever a sense from anyone higher up, like, “We know it’s British, but could you make it a little less British, to suit a more global audience”?
JB: No, we never got that from anyone. Part of the reason why the show is distinct and works is it is British and set in London. No, we never got that from anyone.
SV: No, I think the development of it was such that by the time Xbox came onto it, followed by AMC, they both kind of recognized that. It was fantastic to get William Hurt. They seemed over amped and excited about that. There was nothing that was like we need to have half the characters American and shoot some scenes. That never came up. They were very happy with it being the show that it was.
I am curious about the idea of bringing in William Hurt. Was the character always American, and then William Hurt was available? Or was it “William Hurt is available, so the character is American”?
SV: In the very first draft of the script, as I recall, we didn’t specify his nationality. We always wanted to have an international aspect to the cast, to sort of balance out. It’s a very small story in one way. It’s about this family. It’s quite domestic. We wanted to sort of creep into the fact that this was a global story, and that the creation of these machines have been a global enterprise. The machines themselves have sort of an international look. There are different ethnicities. When we had this brainwave of making [George] an American and finding an American actor for that, it felt like a natural fit. It made the origin of this feel a bit bigger. The sum of the world’s best scientists has been gathered to create these machines, and William’s character is one of those.
I apologize if I somehow missed a date flying up onto the screen, but how far in the future is this set?
JB: That is one of the things we took from the original, a key from the original concept. It’s not really set in the future. The concept is that it is like a parallel present. It functions as if Synths had been invented, say, 10 years ago. That is why there is no other technology in the show that is futuristic. The way that works well for us is it allows us to focus just on that one thing, to focus just on the Synths and how they interact in this world. If there were flying cars and all the other things, the scenes wouldn’t be so extraordinary because we wouldn’t focus on how they affect society quite so well.
SV: There is supposed to be an allegory for our real technology. One thing we always said, which actors joke about, is that we sport them like an iPad. An iPad has been around for the same amount of time. If you have an iPad, likely no one has an iPad 1 anymore. They don’t work. They are broken. They have the cracked screen. That is kind of the Odi character.
Then there are the latest models. When they came out, it was extraordinary. They were an extraordinary, game-changing piece of technology. It’s something if you saw on the tube in London, you’d think, “Wow, look at that. I have to get one of those.” That’s how we feel they’ve integrated themselves. Where we are with the iPad is about where the characters on the show are with their technology.
That is a great rule of thumb. But if this show does progress further down the timeline, do you see having to accelerate that process? The kind of advances that you are potentially hinting at could fundamentally change this parallel present to be more advanced than us.
JB: It is something we address further down in the series. We pull out into the wider world, about why society is reacting to how these things might effect the economy, the job market, that sort of thing.
SV: They are encroaching ever further into every area of life, as technology is in our world. This never makes it into the foreground of the show but we have background things, like there is fierce debate in the government about whether or not these things should be allowed in classrooms to work as classroom assistants. Because where do you stop? Where do you cut that movement? They are superlative to every area — arts, emotion, work, and domestic. That process is possibly reversible and there are people who very much want to stop it. Whether or not they are successful, you will have to watch the show.
From your personal perspectives, do you feel like the show has a pro-technology stance or an anti-technology stance?
JB: We decided from the very beginning that we didn’t want to make a judgment on this world. We didn’t want to say this was a dystopian world or a utopian world. We want the audience to decide. That is why we have explored, in the show, both the pros and cons of these things and how they affect. We want our audience to sit at home, having the debate, saying, “I’d get one,” or “I wouldn’t get one.” They’re terrible, or they’re great. That was a conscious decision from the very beginning.
SV: It’s not sufficiently interesting for us to present clearly one way or the other. Most science fiction stories from the start would rather be an overt dystopia, where the robots rule and the humans are subjugated or a subtle dystopia where everything seems like a utopia but actually is awful. We wanted to do something with a little bit more texture than that, that show sides to the story. From the first episode, there are some people whose lives are being affected quite negatively by this, and then there are those who seem to have a quite positive relationship with these machines. We never set a clear position on that.
What is interesting about that is that when you get into discussions on who is human and who is not human and then what are human rights as a result. That is a hard topic to take a neutral stance on.
SV: It is. We want to hear all of the arguments. I would say that we probably have a forward position on some of those aspects, but what we tried very hard on is to not take a forward position on the wide usage of this technology in the world. We do obviously have viewpoints on which characters’ beliefs we share. You will have to work out what they are. [laughs] In terms of the wider world we present, we didn’t want to hit a one-note thing. As we get deeper and deeper into the story and explore those questions we are talking about, you can’t be objective about a character’s desires and needs to act accordingly. It was a bit of the oblique version. [laughs]
You have the advantage of having a wide range of characters, for a diversity of opinion. I’m wondering if for each of you, since this is such an ensemble piece, is there a specific character or storyline that you really connect with personally.
JB: That’s an interesting one. I don’t want to offend any of the actors. It’s tough having worked on it for so long. We invested so much in all of them. Part of our job is to find personal residence in all of those stories, in all of those characters. It’s really tough. It’s really tough for me to pick one out anyway.
SV: I would say that it is the same. I would say that the George and Odi storyline is quite precious because it’s a very slow grown, emotional type story, quite touching. In many ways, it is one of the freshest aspects of the show, seeing something that is touching, positive, and slightly tragic in that relationship between the human being and the Synth. That was always an important one to get exactly right. It wasn’t particularly driving the main story or anything like that. It wasn’t the thriller side of things, but it was always important to get right. With this cast, they’ve all made their characters people you really want to know. That’s the problem and that’s a problem for us because there is nobody that we could easily think, oh, we will sideline them. Unfortunately, they’ve given us the real problem, by being good.
JV: —which is a nice problem to have.
How much of the show do you have planned out beyond Season 1, in your head? Like, do you have an idea what the Season 5 finale is?
SV: We very much have a big picture of the second season in mind, the big things happening in the world. We have ideas for basically every character that you see in Season 1. The challenge is that as the story gets bigger, keeping the story also on the human consequences. The story is about family. We feel like we have a good balance in mind. Beyond that, it is a bit sketchy. We do have ideas of how things would develop even a bit further, but right now we’re anxious to see how Season 1 does.
JB: Season 5 we have no idea about. I’m happy to confess to that.
The reason I even put out the idea of Season 5 is American network shows can go on for that long, very comfortably, and I’m wondering how if it did go for five or six seasons, would that feel weird to you or would it be a blessing?
JB: It would be great. From the very first time we watched the original series, we thought that there is so much territory here. There are so many interesting and wonderful ideas that we can explore. There are so many more that we can even fit in Season 1. One of the benefits of it taking place in this sort of real world is it takes a 360 view of this world, all sorts of different people, in all sorts of areas. We don’t have the focus of some genre shows. We take a look at the world in its totality. The thing is we have so many areas to explore, which means you can keep on going, keep doing different things—
SV: —keep creating new characters, new relationships.
JB: —new areas, new worlds.
SV: It’s not driven by one man’s quest. That sort of story sort of bounds itself off. Overall, I will also say that we have the macro story, the old rule story of what is happening to these machines. What they really are and where they are going. What is going to happen to humanity? That is a big kind of epic saga. I think that will drive us for several seasons, should we be lucky enough for that to happen. It is an incredibly exciting thought, and then we have the space to tell it with human stuff as well.
It could be like “The Wire,” where for Season 2, you’re down at the docks.
SV: That’s it.
JB: Exactly. We could just change location.
SV: Season 4, you are with the kids. That is my favorite season.
JB: That’s the best season.
SV: That’s everybody’s favorite season of “The Wire.” What is your favorite of “The Wire?”
I’m partial to 3, but 4 is amazing.
JB: Four has got that heart.
SV: Three is the Shakespearean one, isn’t it? Stringer, Avon, that old thing. That comes to a head there.